We recruited Alexia Kauffman to hike out to Wolf Trap and cover this show for us.
Saturday night the audience at Wolf Trap heard three unique angles on American indie-folk music. Omaha, Nebraska’s Bright Eyes, currently on an international tour, brought along Portland’s M. Ward and Los Angeles’ Dawes for what was a spirited evening of Americana, indie-folk, rock, and just plain good music.
A quartet of young gentlemen, Dawes is composed of brothers Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith on lead vocals/guitar and drums & backup vocals respectively, Wylie Gelber on bass, and Taylor Strathairne on keyboard and back-up vocals. Their sound has been likened to the Laurel Canyon sound of the sixties and seventies. Think of Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Byrds, or Buffalo Springfield. More than just recycling retro sounds, the band breathes new life into the American classic rock sound.
When they came onstage it was clear that they already had some fans in the audience, as people hollered, and cheered even louder when they announced themselves. They opened up their set with “If I Wanted Someone,” a kind of melancholy love song, with soulful piano blending with guitar riffs and driving bass. Another highlight came a couple songs later with “Coming Back to a Man”, off of their new album “Nothing Is Wrong”. The upbeat number was reminiscent of The Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man”, and had some of the crowd dancing along. The best moments came with their tight vocal harmonies and the blending of the piano into the roots rock sound. They closed out their short set with their most popular song, the harmony-laden ballad “When My Time Comes”, and left the audience feeling that their time is coming soon.
Next up was M. Ward, bringing more of a blues sound to the stage. Starting off with just an acoustic guitar, Ward played a bluesy instrumental jam to set the mood. He continued through the first half of his set solo, with his guitar. Ward waxed philosophical in the soft and lyrical “Chinese Translation”, asking “If life is really so short, why is the night so long?” He switched from guitar to piano for a poignant and lovely cover of the Daniel Johnston song “Story of an Artist.” For the second half of his set he stepped up the pace a little and invited Dawes back onstage to join him. They played four songs together, ending with a lively rendition of “Big Boat” which had Ward tearing it up on the piano, channeling Jerry Lee Lewis.
Headliners Bright Eyes took the stage to a roar of cheers, the audience ebullient. I was happily surprised to see local siren Laura Burhenn at the keyboard! Burhenn was a fixture of the DC scene for years both as a solo act and as a member of the now-defunct indie-pop sensation Georgie James, before moving to Omaha a couple of years ago. She now fronts the band The Mynabirds, whose first album was released on Oberst’s label Saddle Creek last year. Bright Eyes’ lineup on Saturday included 7 players in all: two drummers, a guitarist who alternated from pedal steel to electric, 2 keyboardists (Burhenn included), a bassist & Connor Oberst on guitar and lead vocals. It seemed that most of those onstage were multi-instrumentalists. It was a full stage and a big sound for most of the night.
The band played repertoire spanning from the nineties to 2011; they ran the gamut from electronic skewed to full-out big rock to stripped-down folk. Oberst was full of energy, constantly moving, and his band backed him up with equal enthusiasm. One of the more intimate moments of the night came as most of the band exited the stage, leaving Oberst and a trumpeter to play a tender rendition of “Lua.” The lyrics “what is simple in the moonlight by the morning never is…” seemed perfectly timed, as the moon peeked into the audience from the right of the stage. Some other highlights of the set included “Falling Out of Love at This Volume”, “Cartoon Blues”, off the 2007 album Four Winds, and a fiery rendition of “The Calendar Hung Itself” off of 2000’s Fevers and Mirrors. For an enthusiastic encore Bright Eyes invited M. Ward and Dawes onstage and had the whole crowd dancing and clapping along to “Road to Joy”.